Saturday, September 13, 2008

Setshwaro ke Dinja tse Pedi, Ga se Thata

(That which is caught by two dogs cannot give them much difficulty. – Setswana Proverb)

The last month or so, I’ve been involved in a lot of slow paced, hard slogging work. Unlike the flash-in-the-pan events like Youth Day and my camps, this work is high risk as it has involved a huge commitment of time, thought, and energy giving it the potential for incredible success or terrifying failure… Hopefully in a few months I’ll be writing a big triumphant story. For now though, there are no big magnificent events to post, but there are some encouraging signs that I wanted to share. There are some attitudes and actions that beat us down every day in our work here, but when I see behavior change, when I see people breaking the stultifying norm and taking control of their lives, I know why I am here. I am here to applaud them, tell them they are not crazy, and help give them the strength and knowledge to go on forging their own paths. As they say; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, united we stand, or, in Setswana, Setshwaro ke dinja tse pede, ga se thata.

A committee…that meets?

In my previous posts, I mentioned the Books for Peace Project, started by my colleague Rose. Firstly, a huge thank you again to all of you that donated to the project and helped 30 libraries each get a huge jump start. Secondly, a huge thanks to Rose, Books for Africa, and the others that made the project a reality. As the time for the books to arrive came closer, I had a huddle with some of my key teachers and we decided to form a library committee. We set our first meeting date and invited any staff that was interested. In the end, only 6 of my 21 teachers attended that first meeting. The library chair himself did not come. Still, with a little prodding and encouragement, those of us that showed up used the lack of interest and leadership to rally ourselves. We made an action plan to recruit community members and students into the committee, we solidified our finances, and we set a second meeting for right before the books would arrive.

In the two weeks that followed, we recruited 2 students and 3 community members to the committee. I played some backdoor politics and convinced the chair that he was over-worked and over-committed. Then I gave him a face-saving way to step down from his position so that I could get a more driven teacher in his place. For our second meeting, we had over 90% attendance at the time of the meeting and opened about 10 minutes later. What? T.I.A.? Yes, on time and in Africa. For my American readership, this may not seem that big of a deal, but my PCV buddies, you feel me here. The principal attended the meeting too. We came up with several plans of action, including the creation of student and library cards, a volunteer timetable and training schedule, and solidified our leadership. The students and community members actually spoke up to voice their opinions rather than sitting in deference to the teachers (yes, really). Our next meeting was set for when the books arrived.
I left the next day and spent a week in meetings and sorting books in Pretoria before returning to my school to see what had been done. When I arrived, I found that the students had continued on with the work of cataloging old books that I had started. I had trained them for maybe 2 days and they had spent the week labeling 300 books and cataloging 30 more books on the Linux based computer system I had set up. Our principal showed his commitment to us by getting us a laminating machine and color printer to make some snazzy library and student cards. On top of that, one of our community volunteers, an old man that only completed standard 8 (grade 10), was coming every day and would excitedly talk about books he found and check them out to read.

When it came time for our next meeting, again we had high attendance and began within minutes of our scheduled start time. The two guys I’d recruited from the students had recruited two girls to help, balancing out our student librarians. We committed to a schedule to start working and set the end of September as our deadline to get the library up and running. Other teachers at the school were continually confused by finding out we were meeting. There are dozens of committees on paper in the school, but they don’t actually meet or do anything… Some complained because we were actually making decisions. Fortunately the principal is so thrilled by the idea of a committee actually accomplishing something that he has given us all the support we need.

Knocking on

In South Africa, when you are going to “close shop” or leave work at the end of the day, you “knock off.” (e.g. “Where are you going?” “I’m knocking off now.” “Now? It’s only 1pm…” “It’s month end. Ke chaile! Sharp!” “Sharp…”). One of the big challenges of the education system here is that a plethora of students (and educators and administrators) that are intent on skipping classes (or dodging classes, or bunking classes).

Once again, my library team proved to buck the trend. (Part of it is perhaps because I recruited the teachers that consistently worked late every day and showed up early each morning…) My student and community volunteers have been coming almost every day and working from school out until 5 or 6pm. Last Friday, one of them was chatting with me as we started work. “You know KB, I am seeing we have a lot of work left to do. And really, we must get this work done soon so that we can use the books. I think we must push harder.” “Ok…what do you have in mind?” “Let’s work on Saturdays.” “Ok, what time?” “8am.” Sure enough, the next day, that learner showed up at 8am and together we worked until 4pm. The next weekend all four students committed to coming even though I wouldn’t be there due to a prior commitment. This Friday as I was preparing to “knock off” at 5pm, another student refused. “Let us at least go to half past five. Bring over another box of books, no two boxes.” We locked up at close to 6pm. With kids and community members this committed, I am optimistic that we actually will open this library in a few weeks.

Fasten your Seatbelts

On Monday, I received terrible news. Two of my teachers had been driving back to the village and had lost control of their car. It rolled 4 times and landed in the veld. The car was totaled. They were both in the hospital being checked on. These were two of my hand-picked library teachers, including the new chair of the committee. My heart sank. Fortunately, they sustained no major injuries and were back at school after a few days of rest. How? They were wearing their seatbelts. South Africa, like most developing countries I’ve been in, has a reluctance to buckle up. Indeed, even drunk driving isn’t really looked down upon in the cases I’ve seen. But thankfully, my teachers had done what was unfashionable and uncomfortable and actually used their seatbelts. As a result, they may have saved their lives.
Remove the stumbling blocks

My friend, Adam Bohach (see blogs on my side-bar), recently wrote a post about spoken and unspoken appreciation (and several other very inspiring posts). Basically, the work of development workers is often unsung. We go into our service prepared to pat ourselves on the back because we don’t ask or expect anyone else to. Sometimes though, people surprise you.

After knocking off from the library at near 6pm on Friday, one of my teachers and I were walking back to the teachers quarters. We were chatting about how impressed we were with the students. Caught up in my excitement, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was stepping and stumbled on a rock. My teacher grabbed me then rushed off in front of me tossing rocks out of the way. “Hey, what are these rocks doing here! They are trying to knock down our KB! KB, you can’t let yourself get knocked down, you are too important to us.” It was a playful and somewhat trivial act in a place that is literally covered in rocks (where there aren’t sand pits or thorn bushes) but I think the real meaning he was conveying was more figurative.

The work we do sometimes can be hard to see as meaningful. We see many projects fail, so many people who go on ignoring anything we try to do to help, children being beaten, insurmountable bureaucracy, corruption, risky behavior, and needless deaths. But we also see some people who say no to all of that: people that catch a glimpse of a little light and run after it with all their strength. These people give meaning to my work. No one can be helped without helping themselves first. Rather than trying to force people to stand up, I think our real job is to find those people pushing hard against all the odds holding them down and offer them all we can. And then, if ever we find ourselves knocked down, we don’t have to look far to find a helping hand.